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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Dance review: Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker is gorgeous

In a season already criticized for over-consumption, is it greedy to want more?

World-class dancers. Gorgeous costumes. Beautiful sets. Adorable children. In a season already criticized for over-consumption, is it greedy to want more from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker?

What has become a yearly tradition, Ballet BC once again welcomes the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) to Vancouver for another showing of this seasonal favourite. And based on the size of audience on opening night, local audiences can’t seem to get enough of this familiar ballet.

For many, the story of The Nutcracker (reduced simply to Nutcracker here) requires little introduction. What is more interesting is its origin.

Before being adapted into the now ubiquitous ballet, it started life as a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Written in 1816, Hoffman’s original tale would then be adapted by Alexandre Dumas, best known for such titles as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. It is Dumas’ version which would become the basis for Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet, with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

First performed as part of a double-feature with Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the critical reaction was lukewarm at best. Ironically enough, given how integral they are to the story, much of that criticism came from featuring children so prominently in the ballet.

The modern Nutcracker gained popularity in the 1950s following choreographer George Balanchine’s New York production. The Nutcracker has since become a staple for many ballet companies this time of year.

In fact, some estimates have placed revenues from performances of the ballet, in all its forms, at as much as forty percent of annual ticket sales for many major American companies. Given its annual appearance in Vancouver, with top ticket prices of $120, one has to assume it has also become a perennial moneymaker for both RWB and Ballet BC as presenter.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet first presented The Nutcracker in 1972, with a version from choreographer John Neumeier. Instead of its traditional Christmas setting, Neumeier’s version focused on a birthday party.  It wouldn’t be until 1992 for the current version to make its debut.

Moving back to its Christmas roots, this current version from choreographers Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon, places the story to Winnipeg on the eve of the First World War. In a nod to its Canadian roots there is a hockey game, Mounties on horseback, and even the iconic Hudson’s Bay blanket makes an appearance. There is even an adorable group of tiny polar bears, who no doubt made the trek south due to global warming.

Adorable is a big part of RWB’s Nutcracker, with a large contingent of local youngsters playing everything from the Mounties to angels, to tiny mice. A slightly older group of dance students also gets the opportunity to perform alongside the professionals. For many of these children, this is no doubt a dream come true.

Of course, the biggest draw comes in seeing the RWB’s company of dancers. The precision and elegance of the professionals on stage is near flawless.

Highlights here include the Grand Pas, danced on opening night by Sophia Lee and Liang Xing, and the Chinese dance performed by Saeka Shirai. The Arabian dance from Sarah Davey and Egor Zdor was beautifully mesmerizing, and Thaigo Dos Santos brings a wonderfully skilled and joyful performance in the role of Drosselmeier.

Where the dance may be the twinkling lights on this Christmas tree, it is the lavish costumes from Paul Daigle, and the gorgeous backdrops from scenic designer Brian Perchaluk, that become the star at the top.

While dance and visuals may be the biggest draws in this Nutcracker, one cannot ignore Tchaikovsky’s score. It is here though where the greed comes into play.

Fully expecting a live orchestra, this production relies on pre-recorded music.  Played over the house speakers at the QE, Tchaikovsky’s iconic music never quite achieves the majesty of this Nutcracker’s other elements.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker continues at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (650 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until December 11. Visit for tickets and information.

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